Interview with Francesc Mateu

Cèlia Cernadas
Francesc Mateu

Francesc Mateu

Francesc Mateu - Director of Intermon-Oxfam in Catalonia and President of the Catalan Federation of NGOs for Development

Is it possible to understand cooperation without civil society?
No. Civil society must be involved in all stages of cooperation projects, civil society cannot be left out of any process, even a process that involves conflict. The chronification of many of these processes occurs because we have left out civil society. At Intermon, we understand that any process needs active citizens and effective governments.

Indeed, the role of NGOs as intermediaries and actors has been recognised for some time by international organisations such as the UN, which includes them in its consultative councils. To what extent is their capacity for influence real?
In order to be influential, it is necessary to be very large and to have a clear desire to exert influence. There are few cases like this. The UNO, WTO and IMF are organisations where we can make our voice heard, but they have a structure that must be changed. It must not be the case that five countries at the UNO can block any decision, or the economic contribution of a country determine its ability to influence; states end up deciding for themselves.

And if the international organisations have recognised the role of civil society through NGOs, is the same true of governments? Especially in countries where the NGOs have to work with non-democratic governments
it is very difficult for us. At present, in Haiti, for example, the entire reconstruction process in Port-au-Prince is taking place with absolutely no input from civil society, and with a non-existent government. In things as obvious as working after an earthquake, we still do not allocate money or effort to reconstructing civil society first. We start by constructing buildings, without taking into account the people who have to live in them. But if we do not reconstruct Haiti based on citizenship, we will be building a white elephant and in a short time, we will be in the same position.

What does civil society being able to participate mean? How can it participate, through which channels?
People have to have the right to define their future as they wish, we cannot come in from outside and decide what has to be done in Port-au-Prince. We have to work with the organisations that were there before the earthquake, with neighbourhood associations, and strengthen these networks so that in this extreme emergency situation, we have the basics to be able to continue with all the processes that they want. If people have to dedicate all their energy to survival, it will be difficult for us to find someone who is thinking beyond that. We make life easier for them, so that there are some minimal conditions for creating civil society.

And what happens with countries facing a catastrophic situation, or armed conflict, in which the civil society is non-existent or has been completely demobilised and dismantled? Can international NGOs replace this local civil society?
No. We have already made that mistake, and we will continue to make mistakes. We often want processes to meet the deadlines that we have approved for the project, and it doesn't work like that. We should not be thinking in terms of reconstructing Haiti in three years, when the country has been in this state for decades. Reconstructing civil society will take us a long time, but that is the foundations for Haiti to move on from where it is today. Yes, we may have a very weak civil society, but let us support it, look for groups that work, support their initiatives, and help them to organise. But we should never replace them. It is a difficult target, because it is difficult to obtain financing for these projects. It is very difficult for us, because they are not visible processes, they are projects which are often impossible to photograph.

A recurring criticism is that action by NGOs stops or limits initiatives by local civil society. Has that been assimilated?
The criticism has been assimilated for a long time, but there are many NGOs. Not everyone sees things in the same way, but those of us in the federation have been working in this direction for many years. The aim is to strengthen local civil society, to provide it with empowerment.

Such as?
The election of Evo Morales as the president of Bolivia is nothing more than an empowerment process at breakneck speed, whether you like him or not. Despite it being easier in South America than in Africa, because the dynamic is part of the people's make-up, which was total empowerment in record time, because it includes the political, cultural, economic and all types of other areas.

In what specific ways can an NGO like Intermon be involved in a process for strengthening civil society?
For example, there may be a situation where you have been working for some time with Guaraní communities in southern Bolivia; you've helped them to make a diagnosis in their communities, to construct a basic stable production structure, to have an environmentally sustainable education system and healthcare system. The communities move forward, and at a certain time decide that they need a mayor. As you know, these groups do not have sufficient capacities for administration, and you have to take action - in this case as the specialist adviser to local political authorities.

A great deal of mistakes have been documented in the cooperation field, such as installing telephone booths where there are no lines, which shows that there is sometimes a lack of connection between the projects and the conditions they are supposed to be dealing with. Do cases like that not happen any more?
Cases like that happen often, although perhaps more often in cases of government aid than through NGOs. The NGOs make mistakes, and I think that is fair enough. I remember a project in Namibia that we subsequently realised that we should not have carried out. We thought we had the support of the local population, and it turned out that we didn't, the cultural centre that we built was isolated and hasn't worked. But those mistakes are part of the process; the most important thing is knowing that you have made a mistake

In recent years, NGOs have become professionalized. Is there now a standard process of identification, assessment and management of the project in a country in the South?
No, because there can never be a standard process there. There are many models of cooperation, and after analysing them all, none of them has been shown to be "the model." Every place and each set of circumstances are different. We cannot create a prior strategy; we have to produce a very flexible strategy. Carrying out a project in Mozambique in an area where refugees are returning after many years of war has nothing to do with doing the same thing with Guaranis in Bolivia.

And how do you identify a need that becomes a project?
What we often have to identify is not a project, but instead a group. Let us take Africa: it is more important that we find a group and we support its activities, however crazy they may seem to us, because that group has to learn from its errors and develop on its own. To give a specific example: at the end of the war in Mozambique in 1992, with people returning en masse from refugee camps without any possessions, I only found one group of young people who wanted to do anything. The group felt that the priority was to produce the Sunday newsletter of the parish church. At times like that, one thinks: what are they thinking of? We supported the Sunday newsletter, it was a mistake, they realised that, they carried out their own assessment process, and afterwards they established a group that worked in a neighbourhood, and which did an amazing job. We made two or three mistakes, which we thought would happen, but we wanted to support the process, rather than the project itself, because in reality that is the way for the group to grow.

Can involvement by foreign civil society ever be distorting or inadvisable?
Yes. There are cases in which it can be distorting and counter-productive. There are some that don't worry me, because they can act like enzymes: they can accelerate the reaction without being consumed by it, in other words, the reaction would take place anyway, but the external involvement accelerates this reaction. These involvements which accelerate the reactions which have to take place anyway don't concern me, they are not a problem. What happens is that often, when you become involved, you cannot be completely certain that the reaction will take place. We have to try and make our level of intervention as minimal as possible, but on the other hand we shouldn't make human spaces into zoos that we have to leave untouched. There must be an interaction, we have to do the best we can on equal terms with the people and talk about the processes.

To what extent does the need of visibility of NGOs due to financing and resources determine how projects are selected and implemented?
I would like to say never, but it wouldn't be true. Any NGO has to have a basic financing strategy that provides a balance between the money you have, the source of that money and what you want to do. Projects with public organisations allow us to do that; with private financing it is more difficult because there are questions of image, and you have to be able to place the plaque and take the photograph.

Like the pharmaceutical companies that sponsor humanitarian convoys to the Sahel, for example?
That is something different. One thing is to seek a balance between the help you give them and the image you create, and something else again to use cooperation to restore your image. Some pharmaceutical companies need to be consistent: you can't give the impression that you're very generous, giving a pittance to an aid convoy, and then cut all the research into the world's most important diseases, or prevent generic drugs to be given to South Africa or India from being manufactured. Without at least some consistency, what you have is a fraudulent use of cooperation.

As president of the NGOs federation, has the debate been concluded on the need for assessment and monitoring mechanisms when valuing the effectiveness of projects?
No, that debate will never be resolved, because we will never have a formula that gives us total assessment. We can assess the results: a number of children have gone to that school, or that dispensary has treated a number of people, or we have trained a number of people. But beyond that, what we need to know is whether the project has led to a change in those peoples' lives. And that is very difficult.

What is the most important internal debate that is now taking place within NGOs?
I suppose our most important challenge now is to restore the feeling that despite the recession, the world is a global one and we have to place specific projects in the context of this global world; that ending inequalities involves considering them globally. And when people tell you that you have to think about your neighbours first, you have to ask who that neighbour is: Africa is 14 kilometres from Spain. All the messages we receive from the media and the environment are sealing off Catalan and Spanish society from their closest neighbours.